13 January 2016

Google Fit app review: a free and excellent fitness tracker

If there's one piece of technology that has really exploded in popularity in recent years, it has to be fitness trackers. As recent as 3 years ago wearing devices around your wrist, clipped to your clothing was a niche market. At the same time, using phone app to track your runs or rides were common for enthusiasts and competitors, but the average person didn't care all that much. Since then however, it's difficult to be in a public place, a shopping centre, office, or busy pedestrian street without spotting many a lot of these devices on people's wrists.

Activity trackers likes Fitbits were among the most popular holiday gifts for the last couple of years. Whether it's dedicated devices or specific apps, it's become incredibly common, extremely easy and debatably useful for people track their steps, weight, distance travelled, energy burned and overall physical activity in pursuit of better health and well being. There are so many options with a wide range of features, form factors and price points, but if you're just starting out and testing the waters, Google Fit may be what you're looking for.

Google Fit is an activity tracker created and managed by Google, in the same vain as Gmail, Google Photos, and Google Calendar. Like all other Google Apps, Google Fit is at its core, web-based which means all information is stored and sorted on Google’s services and therefore accessible across all internet connected devices. Google Fit’s ability to automatically track steps, distance and all other typical use-case information, requires your phone to run Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) if the phone itself is going to be the primary tracker. The Android OS version shouldn’t be a worry as over 90% of all Android devices run at least 4.0 - if you have an Android device younger than 5 years, you should be good.

What Google Fit does

Google Fit is an app which tracks all of the basic markers of physical activity - steps, distance, active time and energy burned. It also allows you enter goals for each on a daily or weekly basis, and enter your weight measurements. The ring is usually the first graphic you see which fills as you build your activity each day with different colours differentiating between different information. The app is able to intelligently distinguish between walking and running, so if you forget to identifying a run, it will still log your steps, energy and the rest as your pace picks up. It's needy, but fun, to go back and find out that it identified those times you quickly scurried across the road or ran around the yard with the dog for a few minutes. Of course, for deliberate workouts, you can select your activity from a massive list (A-Z, Aerobics to Zumba) and the app will smartly configure energy burning, steps and active time for you. You can also enter an activity afterwards - in case you forgot or didn’t have your phone, or any tracking device on you at the time of your workout.

Google Fit then sorts all of this information and presents it to you in real time and with next to no effort. Simple rings and bars show progress, icons are clear and the overall interface make scrolling through past activities, entering new data, changing settings or viewing progress trends easy and fast. The app is designed incredibly cleanly and refrains from bombarding you with menus, options and other elements that could create a cluttered and distracting user experience. Everything you could want to see is incredibly easy to find.

Google Fit is free and available everywhere
The best things about Google Fit are it's price and availability. As alluded to before, like most Google services it is entirely free and accessible anywhere. Download the app to your Android phone, spend 5 seconds activating it and you're good to go. There's no need to turn it on or off when you want to use it, once you're setup it just just keeps working. I am pretty deliberate with tracking my activity, it's fun for me, so I'm always looking at the app on my phone, or on my laptop (fit.google.com) to see how things are going. My wife doesn't care so much, but does like to see from time to time. She remembers her phone does this maybe once a week and very simply she can get a solid idea of how active she's been over the last few days, weeks or months. Of course, this depends on your phone being on you, unless you have a tracker or smart watch.

The availability is where I find the most piece of mind. Apple Health requires an Apple device, there is now Web version, so if you one day move to Android or Windows phone and your history is locked within Apple's walls. As said before, Google Fit being available via a browser adds a greater layer of openness for the long term. It's so handy to be able to look at my activity on my phone, tablet and laptop, and it pulls from most other notable fitness trackers to combine everything in one place is incredible. The value increases exponentially as I'll still be able to do so when I upgrade all of those devices. IT should be noted however that synschornisation isn’t perfect - at least not in real-time. Below is a photo of the web-site screen, my tablet and phone and as you can see the information is close, but not exactly the same. Past results all seem to be consolidated, for example the logs are all identical as of 2 days ago and earlier, but real-time and the day before seem to be be slightly conflicting.

While the slight glitch in across-device consistency isn’t perfect, this flexibility is the greater plus. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is forever, so if you're in the camp that finds value in activity tracking, being locked into whatever device you're using in a given moment, and the possibility of losing everything if and when you change to something else is a big deal. You may use a step counter now, then take up running next year and therefore want a different device made by a specific running brand like Polar, change phone makers 2 years later, and who knows what else in the decades to follow. It pains me that the biggest line, Fitbit is refusing to partner with Google (or Apple) on this. Fitbits are great, but on a  personal level I don't like services that are built to lock me in.

There's no iOS app yet
The unfortunate and frankly, un-Google aspect is that there currently is not iOS app. The Google Fit app is exclusive to Android, just like Apple’s version, HealthKit is exclusive to iOS. This means that iPhone users can use Google Fit to keep their records, but the phone’s sensors can’t feed into Google Fit directly. That being said, Google has allowed access to developers for anyone who chooses to use their APIs, which means that most of the well known fitness apps, Nike, Strava, Adidas, Withings, Runtastic, RunKeeper, and MapMyFitness can all synch to Google Fit. So, if you use Strava to track your bike rides, Nike+ to track your runs, plus want a place to log your weight each week, Google Fit can be your one-stop-shop. It is bothersome that Google Fit is not available on iOS. Google Apps are usually written for Apple devices (Gmail, Drive, Google Maps, Google Play Music and Google Photos are all on iOS), as Google’s model is built on allowing everyone to use their services, so Google Fit may be coming. Long story short, if you have an Android device, you’re all set, if not, you’ll need a fitness tracker otherwise you’ll be entering things manually.

Google Fit is a free application for logging and tracking your physical activity and workouts. There’s no iOS app yet, but you can still access the app via the website which is a very big advantage. This, plus the fact that it can link to almost all other fitness tracking devices (i.e., Withings, Runtastic, Strava, Nike+, RunKeeper, etc) means that your activity will stay with you regardless of what watch, phone, wristband, tablet or laptop you find yourself using as the years go on. And, given that maintaining an active and healthy lifestyle isn’t a temporary endeavour, the ability to keep tracking your workouts, if you find so beneficial, regardless of what watch, phone or wristband you’re using is incredible.

The link to the website is fit.google.com and you can find the